What Happens at Men's Gatherings?
From Menletter November 2007
By Tim Baehr
We sit in a circle, fifteen or twenty men. An object - a stick, a stone, a rattle, a small drum - sits in the center. A man stands up, takes the object, and begins to speak.
He says his name and gives a brief report on his state of affairs - why he's there, how he's feeling, or anything else that comes to mind.
The man replaces the object, and another man rises and takes it. He gives his own accounting.
And so it goes, until each man who wants to speak has spoken. The talking stick or other object is simply a reminder that the man holding it is the only one speaking. There's no commentary, no cross-talk.
This checking-in activity begins many men's gatherings. It's a way to break the ice and get to know new guys or catch up with news from guys we already know.
The activities at men's gatherings are many and varied. If you've never been to any or many gatherings, you may be curious, and a little bit apprehensive, about what takes place. I'd like to share some of my experiences in the hope that some of you may want to do more of the kind of men's work that has enriched many of our lives.
I've noticed four basic kinds of men's gatherings.
The first kind I attended, almost 20 years ago, was led by some of the luminaries (or perhaps celebrities) of the men's movement of the 80s and early 90s - Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade. They were the pioneers of the mythopoetic movement, which involved story-telling and poetry to remind men that there was a spiritual and psychological aspect of their lives that was worth paying attention to. The evening presentations, weekend retreats, and week-long retreats had experiential activities (more about these later), but much activity centered on the leaders and their seminar-like presentations. This often was our first, heady taste of what came to be called men's work. We met leaders who seemed to know a lot of stuff and had written books about it. We also met ordinary men like us. It was the first time many of us had been around a large number of men in a non-threatening atmosphere of mutual respect and non-competitiveness.
A second kind of gathering is facilitated by a small staff of men who plan and participate in most of the activities. There is no celebrity-expertise on the staff, just a bunch of men who have wrestled fruitfully with life as men and are dedicated to helping men have similar experiences. The gathering has a theme and a planned series of experiential activities. For ten years, I've attended the Men's Wisdom Council, an annual week-long retreat in western Massachusetts. The facilitators are as varied as the men who attend: One leads various men's retreats full-time. Two are carpenters. One is a gardener and retired chiropractor. One is a poet and retired insurance executive. One is a massage therapist. One was a contractor who now does alcoholism counseling. The men attending this gathering work and play hard in the activities that the facilitators plan - and the facilitators work and play right alongside us.
A third kind of gathering is organized by a small group of men who arrange for the location, the food, and some of the all-group activities. But the cooking, cleanup, and workshops are done by the men who show up. The weekend may have a theme, but the workshops are quite varied. Since there may be two or more workshops in the same time slot, the workshops are not whole-group activities. I've seen workshops on pornography, computer repair, knife sharpening, intimacy, touching and being touched, prostate cancer, tree husbandry, a sweat lodge, and many more. Whole-group activities include dancing to music or drums, sitting in opening and closing circles, reading our poems in poetry circles, participating in talent shows, and drumming. Mainely Men, started 26 years ago, established this format. The format has spread to the other New England states with annual or semi-annual weekend gatherings.
A fourth kind of gathering is the vision quest, though the ones I've participated in included women. A vision quest involves a few days of careful physical, psychological, and practical preparation followed by a four-day solo camp-out in the wilderness with just water - no food and no tent. After the solo adventure, the participants share their experiences over the ensuing few days.
There are no doubt other formats and variations on these. They have a few things in common, to varying degrees: contact with a variety of men; emphasis on self-discovery, especially as men; spiritual awakening; contact and communion with nature; a safe, nonjudgmental atmosphere; and a temporary escape from the crazy or humdrum aspects of our daily lives.
I've already mentioned some activities - check-in circles, workshops, sweat lodges, camping out. Men's gatherings offer many other activities, which fall into several broad categories with considerable overlap: transition or preparation; trust; emotional release work; physical challenges; consciousness-altering (without drugs); celebration.
At every gathering I've been to, the leaders or facilitators have emphasized that all activities are optional. One phrase for this is "radical freedom," which is the only explanation a man needs to opt out. I've never seen anything but respect for a man who chose to sit out an activity.
Many gatherings open with some kind of transition or preparation activity to dramatize that we're leaving behind ordinary place and time and entering a sacred space that is not measured by rulers and clocks. This activity might be as simple as meeting in a common room and lighting a candle as we express our intentions for the gathering. It may include a trust activity, such as a blindfold walk, holding onto the shoulder of the man in front of us. The careful preparation for a vision quest is a kind of transition, culminating in a blessing circle as each member of the group hikes to his or her solo camp.
Trust activities are a way to assure ourselves that the gathering is a safe place to be and that the other men are of good will. The activities seem to include blindfolds much of the time - a blindfold walk or even a blindfold run across a field. The most dramatic activity for me was mask-making. It is a strange feeling to have to lie perfectly still as a new acquaintance covers your face and obliterates your vision with heavy strips of wet plaster-soaked cloth.
Emotional release work (also called rage work or grief work) includes techniques of flushing into the open whatever demons are plaguing us, so we can wrestle with them, defeat them, or perhaps even befriend them. This is perhaps the most heavy-duty activity in men's gatherings. In my experience, these activities take place only after having formed a community of men, which serves as a safe container. In our western society, it is typically very hard for a man to express feelings to himself, much less to other men. In a safe community, in which deep mutual trust has developed, men know that whatever they experience or witness will stay within the community.
One form of this kind of activity is called mat work, named for the use of mats on the floor to keep us safe. After appropriate preparation, which may include guided meditation, a man mentions to a group of five or six men some person or aspect of his life that has hurt him deeply. One or more men personify the source of the hurt, taunting the man. The others hold him back as he fights to get at his tormenter. The rage builds as the men hold him back; as it ebbs, they slowly release him, letting him push through the hurt and grief.
Another form of rage work involves a man's striking a pile of cushions or mats with a stick as he expresses his rage or grief.
Milder forms of emotional release work include finding or making an object to carry the emotion or other personal challenge and then getting rid of it by burning it, burying it, throwing it away, or doing some other symbolic action.
Most of the physical challenges I've experienced have been on vision quests - hiking with a heavy pack, going without food, being alone, withstanding the cold night. These special challenges tend to focus the mind and put life's day-to-day challenges into perspective. The vision part of a quest may not be so much a hallucinatory experience as it is a clarifying experience.
Consciousness-altering activities help us explore the inner spaces of our psyches and open us to the world just beyond the veil of ordinary perception. Since the use of drugs or herbs is rare or prohibited in most men's gatherings, the altered states are induced in other ways. The vision quest, with its physical challenges, is designed partly for this kind of altering. In a sweat lodge, men sit in total darkness around a pit inside a Hogan-like structure as glowing hot rocks are brought in. The extreme heat and disorienting darkness can bring out deep insights and feelings. A trance dance is done blindfolded to music with a driving beat. Helpers with cushions keep dancers from banging into walls, furniture, and each other. Holotropic breathwork and its cousin, integrative breathwork, involve an hour and a half to two hours of rapid deep breathing to extremely loud music. Responses can range from feelings of peace to visions to very strong emotions. Drumming, especially when carried on at length and accompanied by dancing, brings sound and rhythm into play as a consciousness-altering experience.
Celebration is an important ingredient in many gatherings, usually taking place toward the end. It could be in the form of a meal, a talent show, a dance, or drumming. Celebrations are for expressing joy, zaniness, humor - often of a kind that the larger culture (including many women) finds off-putting or offensive. Within the context, or container, of a men's community, celebrations bring relief from the more serious work, making it seem a little more ordinary and easier to integrate into our daily lives. A wry comment, a joke, a silly costume party, or a wildly hilarious skit lets us not take ourselves so seriously that we can't cope with the everyday stresses and challenges that crowd into our lives after a gathering or retreat.
If we look at the long march of human civilization, we see that the vast majority of our time has been spent outdoors. Even if we date our progress from the first agricultural settlements about 10,000 years ago, we have still not been urban dwellers for more than a tiny fraction of that time. (The word "civilization" implies cities, by the way - it shares the same root with the words "civic" and "city" and "citizen.")
Most of the men's gatherings I've been to have taken place far away from "civilization," that is, far away from cities and towns. The natural settings in my case have been mostly eastern forests; others may include islands, desert wilderness, isolated seashores, or other remote places. Since most of us live in cities and towns, the change of venue creates a sense of transition, even a sense of quest. As we drive out of town, onto a freeway or turnpike, and then onto a side road deeper and deeper into the country, and then perhaps onto dirt roads, we feel the ordinary concerns of our daily lives dropping away. We are entering a magical realm.
This is not a romantic, Rousseauian, back-to-nature plot on the part of the leaders of men's gatherings. Going into the wilderness has, for me, two functions. First is the symbolic, or ritual, distancing ourselves from our daily lives. We are crossing a threshold into a place of strange wonders; we're shifting from ordinary space and time, and our senses are put on alert.
Second is the acknowledgment that the wilderness was once not a strange place. We are, in a sense, returning home to a setting that long ago was as familiar as our house or apartment, to earth and trees and rocks and animals that our ancestors could read as easily as we do the morning newspaper. Traditional societies, at least in my imagination, revered (shall we say worshipped?) their natural environment as a matter of survival. They weren't "in" the environment; they were an integral part of it. Without a level of intimacy with their surroundings and fellow creatures, they would have perished: I wouldn't be here to write this, and you wouldn't be here to read it. We have mostly lost our reverence for our natural environment, and we never had much reverence for our urban environment.
Even with a cabin and a nearby bath house, and perhaps even the whoosh of tires on a distant freeway, a natural setting has much to offer: the smells of fresh air, but also of vegetation, rotting and fresh; the sounds of songbirds at dusk and dawn, and owls at night; rustling in the leaf litter underfoot; a lizard sunning itself; a cactus standing sentinel, or a tall pine making offerings to the sky.
Getting further away from civilization, we see eagles soaring, loon families diving for breakfast in the morning mist, foxes skulking off the path. At night, we're startled awake by a hoot, a howl, a splash, or the deafening crash of a moose too big to care where it steps. We nervously aim a flashlight at the source of a sound and see two neon-yellow eyes shining back, too widely spaced to be a small critter - but fortunately far enough away not to be interested in us.
All of these experiences can resonate with pieces of our genetic inheritance that have lain dormant for millennia. Our modern minds thrill with apprehension; our ancient bodies sigh with comprehension.
Ritual and Ritual Objects
Ritual plays an important part in the activities of men's gatherings. Ritual involves a more or less formal sequence of events whose goal is to create some kind of change in the individual, the community, or both. I've seen changes - some subtle, some dramatic - in the men I've been privileged to share these activities with. All of the activities mentioned above can involve ritual or contain ritual aspects. Often the activity is itself a ritual, but equally often there are other incidentals that help mark an activity as ritual.
The incidentals - fire, incense, sound, darkness - are, among other things, ways of marking an activity as something outside ordinary time and space.
Smudging is the use of incense, typically sage or a combination of sage and other herbs like sweetgrass, burned loose in an abalone shell or as a smudge stick. A smudge stick is simply a bundle of sage in a cigar-like shape that is lit at one end. A facilitator may smudge the room or area in which the activity takes place, or he may smudge each man. As in the religious use of incense, smudging is a way of purifying the space and the participants and signifying that the space and the activity are sacred - set apart from day-to-day activity.
Fire has a magic all its own, as you can probably appreciate if you have ever just sat in your den or living room and stared into the flames. In rituals, fire can appear as a huge bonfire (to watch or dance around), a way of igniting a smudge stick, the heat source for a sweat lodge, or the flame of a candle signifying the presence of our ancestors. It can also be the means of burning away - symbolically - our worries, griefs, or inadequacies that we've written on a piece of paper or bark.
The talking stick (or other object) has been a source of amusement for some women ("You have to hold a stick to talk??!"), but it signifies mutual respect between the man who holds the floor and the men who are listening. Like many ritual objects, the talking stick has roots in the wisdom of older cultures.
Some men create and wear a medicine bag containing objects important to them - stones, seeds, feathers. The bag is usually a small square or circle of leather tied with a leather thong. The creation of a medicine bag is a ritual - gathering the objects and sewing or tying the bag.
Ritual and ritual objects are metaphors for a reality that is larger than our everyday perceptions and concerns. The common ground for all ritual is intention. Anyone can start a fire, light a smudge stick, or sit in a sweat lodge, with no more motivation than to have a nice experience or be one of the guys. Conscious intention can make ritual acts and objects meaningful, enriching our relationship with nature, the universe, and our companions - and with ourselves.
A Community of Initiated Men
In my experience, any time men get together with the intention of connecting with something larger than themselves, a kind of magic happens. Trust-building, council circles, sweat lodges, group meditation, or any of a myriad of other activities can build a male community that is bigger than the sum of its participants. "Male bonding" can sometimes be a cliché or a joke if seen through the myopic lens of popular media. But the closeness and mutual support of a male community, however rare it is in our fragmented society, keeps many of us grounded and gives many of us the sense that we are not alone and that our struggles, failures, triumphs, grief, humor, and zaniness - as men - belong to us all.
When we journey into the unknown - when we go through physical and emotional ordeals - when we expose past wounds scarred over or still festering - when we battle demons as surely as the heroes of mythology did - when we return to our male community - when we sing and play together, we capture much of the essence of initiation in traditional societies. We are preparing ourselves to be effective members of the wider community. A man's process may be sudden, or it may be slow, taking several years. Finally, at some point in our 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, or even beyond, we bid good-bye to the world of boys and become fully men. We return to gatherings over and over, to further our initiation process or as elders offering our wisdom and blessing to the others.
Men's Wisdom Council
©Copyright 2007 by Tim Baehr